Get a text from Zhen, the day before the A Level results are released. Her period is late. You’ll have been worrying about this since the conservatory emailed you a conditional acceptance. Stellar audition, they said. She came over to celebrate, your parents were out working, and before long wine became kiss, kiss became touch, you were naked, she was naked, you were inside her, throbbing.
Show up at her house. Go to the 7-Eleven nearby. Grab some random test kit with a foreign-sounding name. The cashier, a middle-aged woman preoccupied with her mini TV, will look up. You’ll notice her shaking her head slightly as she gets your change. You’ll want to snap at the woman, tell her to keep her judgment to herself, but she is, so say nothing.
Understand that this type of anger is what psychologists term as projection. As you sit on Zhen’s bed waiting for her to finish the test, remember—do not think about when you were four, when you were so distracted by a Stradivarius in the shop window you ran into a fire hydrant. Do not think about a future where the email from the conservatory means shit because you’re too busy cradling the new-born to pick up your violin.
When the bathroom door slides open, Zhen will hold the stick for you to see the cross on it, blatant, provocative.
It could be nothing, you’ll say, struggling even to believe yourself. She’ll say Yeah, they tend to give false positives, and you’ll feel like maybe it’s true because someone who wants to be a doctor would know these things. Besides, she won’t seem too bothered.
Know better. Return to the 7-Eleven.
You’ll want to swipe every test kit off the shelf. Don’t. Zhen will be feeling so much worse because she’s a girl, as in, the girl who opened her legs to a boy. Stay calm. Take the three most expensive ones and go. Don’t look at the cashier because this time you might really lose it when she shakes her head.
All three test kits will yield crosses.
Jesus, you’ll say.
Zhen, on the other hand, will call her sister’s obstetrician on loudspeaker to set an appointment for next Monday. For the whole two minutes her voice will be controlled, tight. The receptionist, before hanging up, will chirp, Have a nice day!
Linger in a quiet embrace and think how exactly to have a nice day. Realise you’re humming Mahler in your head. The one that sounds like a funeral march. Search internally for some sensible sentence said by a dead man you can rehash for this situation. Finally suggest the movies because the cinema is a cold, dark, and quiet place where cuddling in silence is divorced from the pressure of having to dispense platitudes or think up plans.
On the bus she’ll choose the seat reserved for children, the elderly, and expectant mothers. She steals that seat often enough that this won’t be a surprise, but still, it’ll be the first time you’ve noticed this.
Might as well, right? she’ll say, winking.
Say nothing. Take her hands in yours.
At the cinema all the titles will seem dull. You’ll be looking for one that’s complex enough to intrigue but not so hermetic that she or you start to zone out and brood. Eventually you’ll settle for The Old Man and The Dog.
The titular old man will be introduced as a lover of cats, like a weird cat lady but gender-reversed. On his way to the market he encounters a huge stray Rottweiler, the same breed his deceased wife used to own, and tries to bring it home. The dog snarls. The old man backs off, and this sort of back-and-forth continues for the rest of the film. He starts to sell his cats one by one so he can buy premium dog food. Zhen, nestled against your shoulder, will begin to sniffle.
The old man goes on another grocery trip. When he turns the corner to where the Rottweiler always loiters, he finds the Rottweiler laying on the ground dead cold. The old man hobbles. Frantic. The camera orbits him and collapses the surroundings into a greyscale blur. A cello chorale plays in the background, slow, whimpering. The spinning abates and segues to a long shot of the old man sitting on the pavement, hunched over the Rottweiler, stroking its fur for the first time. Pedestrian traffic comes and goes, obscuring the old man and the dog for fleeting moments. A smash cut to black, the credits roll.
Zhen’s face will be a mess. She’ll inhale in staccato. Shaking. Caress her hair. Coo in her ear. Don’t say the music did the heavy-lifting. Don’t point out the ending came out of nowhere. Let yourself feel cheated. You’ll be surprised how easily your tears start falling.
On the bus ride home Zhen will quietly find her way into the reserved seat and the whole journey she’ll gaze out the window. Recall that when she was like this you loved to poke her in the ribs and say, Hey, and once you got her attention you would say: Feeling premenstrual huh?
Swallow your bitter laugh before it worms its way out of you.
That night, you won’t be able to close your eyes without seeing Zhen’s reddened eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Your thoughts will swoop like peregrine falcons.
* * *
Zhen’s stomach burgeons, the thing inside it kicking her, prodding her to break the news to her parents and yours before her amniotic sac does. When the scandal is finally revealed, a barrage of moral judgment avalanches on you. Threats are issued. Zhen is possibly disowned, her parents don’t have a daughter this loose. They curse you. He seemed like a good boy, well-mannered, always greeted everyone at the dinner table. Pa slaps you. Lots of pre-marital and unprotected sex talk. Ma says nothing, just cries. You and Zhen are not allowed to meet again, the word they use is banned, banned, you can’t believe they can actually say that to eighteen-year-olds with straight faces. Zhen doesn’t attend university until at least a year later, and assuming she does, it won’t be medicine she’s studying. She won’t have the money for tuition. Neither do you.
Or you decline the pamphlet and tell the obstretrician you and Zhen have decided. No, you two don’t need more time. You’ll most certainly not be discussing it with your parents. The obstetrician schedules the operation in a week’s time. Your talk over the next week is laced with compensatory prosody. She talks to you about everything except the pregnancy, you ooze positivity. You surprise her with serenades on your violin and she smiles, smiles like the Goddess of Mercy herself although all she can think is that the violin has always reminded her of someone weeping, and that Mozart is amazing for foetal development. A week later, she is wheeled into the operation theatre. The harsh white lights bear down on her, the foetus kicks like a cliché. She wakes up emptier than ever before. She surprises you, surprises everyone, by jumping off the rooftop.
Try and catch some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.
* * *
Shower, shave, get Pa to tie a stately Windsor knot for you. At his insistence, offer incense to ah gong and lao ma. He’ll tell you to say your school address and what grades you want. While staring at the ancestral tablet you’ll wonder if this whole accident with Zhen is karmic retribution. You’ll finally ask the ancestral tablet to just let everything be good, thanks, careful to be vague about the exact means because you don’t know.
Zhen will look way better today. Hey, she’ll smirk at your spiffy tie and say, Nice tie.
Truth is, both of you will be feeling kind of invincible. You’ll even tell her that the whole Results Day thing feels like a farce. What the two of you know, but won’t be saying, is that in a week’s time none of it will matter. People will still be busy saying after the fact, and always on Facebook, never in person, that they aren’t defined by a few letters on a piece of paper, but self-soothing gestures don’t change the fact that in this tiny Asian island-state, twelve years of education hinges upon this day. Assuming you aren’t pregnant.
The principal will say he’s going to read out the names of all the students who have scored six distinctions or more, and will they please come on stage for a photo. The names will be rattled off fast and furious. There’ll be Winston and Yao Rui and Jessica and Xin Xin and Fei Hai and Claire and Siang and then John Chang, Zhen Wang.
The names will echo, really echo in your ears, slicing through the air and halfway across the hall. Mellifluous. Their sound will take you back to your first solo recital, the sea of darkness, the blinding spotlight, the weight of a thousand eyes pawing you. And then the exploding applause.
You and Zhen rise from your chairs and sail to the stage. As you set foot on the beige hardwood floor of the stage everything before it will be a kind of bokeh. This is how it feels to be a musician, just you and the stage and your instrument, or, for this once, your transcript.
The cameraman won’t have to tell the sixty odd of you on stage to smile for the camera. He will however have to beckon—To the centre! Squeeze! Closer! Boy, you’re out of the frame! In! More!—and you’re practically pressed up against Zhen. Then suddenly, like a swelling tide, the scholars will surge towards the centre with unexpected passion. The boy behind you, pushed by the boy behind him and behind him and behind him, will bump into you. You’ll lurch forward into Zhen and as the entire bench that everyone is standing on wobbles from the cacophony of movement, she’ll lose her footing and fall faster than you can catch.
The whole thing will unfold slowly before you: her long hair billowing out towards you, and her petite frame crash-landing.
She’ll lay on the floor balled up in pain, her eyes bolted shut, a soundless cry escaping from her throat, and you won’t know where she’s hurt so you’ll shout for someone to call for the ambulance, but the scholars will say, What, they’ll say, No need for that, one of them will say John don’t worry I’m a first aider let me take a look and you’ll shove all of them aside, shouting, Just fucking call the ambulance! which is when they finally whip out their phones while Zhen lies limp in your hands.
She’s pregnant, you’ll say to the paramedics in the ambulance. Might be, I mean, probably. Probably pregnant.
Zhen will wake up in the emergency room panicking until a doctor comes in and introduces herself as the obstetrician. She’ll probe Zhen’s womb with the ultrasound transducer, combing for long-lost stars buried in deep space. Moments of this, then her hands will steady as the monitor pictures a blob. Black, surrounded by a ring of grey, small like a pea. This, according to her, is the gestational sac. Look, here, the blinking, that’s the heartbeat.
You won’t feel like much of a parent. In fact, all you’ll end up saying is that the gestational sac looks seriously like a black hole, isn’t that funny?
The obstetrician is kind and because she’s a young liberal feminist, she’ll offer the abortion pamphlet. Zhen will decline. She’ll ask for a private moment with you. After the obstetrician has excused herself, Zhen will frown at her blanket. Her lips parting. Closing. Parting. Closing. Straining, like in labour, to push the words out. What she means to tell you is that this isn’t anybody’s fault, and she won’t blame you if you want to leave, but she doesn’t have it in her to abort the baby.
Breathe. Wonder, despite the urgency of the moment, what love is, like the movies. Arrive at Haddaway and baby don’t hurt me. Realise this is it. Squeeze Zhen’s hand. Say: So you can’t stomach it? Eye contact and a wry smile are essential. She’ll look at you in bewilderment for a split second, then see that stupid smile of yours and get it and somehow manage to cry and shake with riotous laughter at the same time.
But you will feel cold. You will, while embracing her, catch your own hazy reflection in the blank ultrasound monitor and still see the lub-dub of the foetal heartbeat. It has no sound, but when you imagine it in the screen you’ll hear the ugliest B-flat, careening out of tune and structure as the bow violently saws away, going cut cut cut and fraying the string until it snaps. That is the nature of its soundlessness. But you are a musician, and facing the music, bending to the music—that’s what you do.